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Sarah King: Tulip or Turnip (Birdwatcher)

A review of the vocalist's first solo recording

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Sarah King: Tulip or Turnip
The cover of Tulip or Turnip by Sarah King

Vocalist Sarah King has been a ukulele busker in the subways of New York, a ringleader of the street brass ensemble Hungry March Band, and a tap-dancing Shirley Temple devotee with a degree in acting from Marymount Manhattan College. Tulip or Turnip, her latest, deepest impression, mints her as a Swing Era-style chanteuse. As a bonus, repeated listening to the less familiar tunes reveals depth beyond her merely tweaking retro tropes with a winsome flair.

King’s vocal style recalls Blossom Dearie and early Billie Holiday, and inevitably suffers when the comparison is too obvious. The mincing prance of “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” strains too hard for Dearie’s campy insouciance, and “You Can’t Lose a Broken Heart” misses the soulful plumbing Holiday brought to the song. But King compensates with lithe phrasing that nails the deft contrasts inherent in Ellington’s title track and Gene Austin’s now-obscure “Everything’s Made for Love,” the latter a stirring duet with bassist Aidan O’Donnell. Best of all, after copying Holiday on the opening verse of “I’m Gonna Lock My Heart (and Throw Away the Key),” King injects some precocious, Temple-like sparkle into her little-voice inflections and claims the song with the swinging charm of a hit single.

More subtle, and perhaps durable, rewards accrue when King flips her persona from flapper to busker. “Empty Pocket Waltz” was composed in the 1950s by obscure singer/songwriter Connie Converse, but King’s wistful rendition, anchored by O’Donnell’s solo, creates a credible context for it as a Depression-era tale. Wisely forgoing the patois of Gershwin’s “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York,” King invests her lilting cadence with surprising tensile strength, further buttressed by interactions with clarinetist Jon DeLucia. And the closer, “I Remember,” carries a cleansing bittersweetness that gently swirls down like a snifter of brandy.

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